What Makes Wikipedia Tick?

October 05, 2007

Whatever your views on Wikipedia, it's clear that the volunteer online encyclopedia has left it's mark on society. But the most important things about Wikipedia have less to do with its contents and more to do with the people contributing and using the service. To understand how and why people collaborate on the Web, you have to understand Wikipedia.

An interview with three leading Wikipedia figures sheds some light on Wikipedia as a collaborative activity.

There is a myth about online collaboration that Open Source practitioners are very familiar with. It goes something like this: "I'll start building something and release it to the community. I'll get feedback from a lot of users, some of whom will fix bugs, write documentation, and build extensions. All of that feedback will create a better product."

Now, this does happen, of course. The reason I consider it a myth is that it happens so rarely that you might as well not count on it. Virtually all Open Source software is designed, written, documented, debugged, and promoted by a single developer with the help of a tiny fraction (say 2-10%) of the committed user base. Pick any good example of Open Source software that works and behind it you'll find a committed user base large enough to make 2-10% a number greater or equal to one. It's not clear this is necessarily a bad thing.

The interview with the Wikipedia leaders confirmed this view. When asked about the idea that lots of contributors makes a good article, Elisabeth Bauer, of the English Wikipedia, had this to say:

The best articles are typically written by a single or a few authors with expertise in the topic. In this respect, Wikipedia is not different from classical encyclopedias.

Her view was shared by Kizo Naoko, of the Japanese Wikipedia who added that short articles tend to remain short and of poor quality.

There doesn't seem to be anything complicated here. Wikipedia places a very low barrier to contribution. It has created a system where active contributors with specialized knowledge feel a sense of ownership over their contributions. Checks and balances insure that these contributors can monitor changes to their work, and correct errors. Finally, the subject matter is so broadly appealing (All of Human Knowledge) that 2-10% of the user base is a massive number.

It may not be complicated, but it's far from easy.